Trauma. Violence. Bullying. Addiction. The range of things that these words encompass has expanded over time, and while my guest today would say that changes in how language is used are natural and inevitable, he also argues that the way we use words matters and has consequences, and that we need to better grapple with what those consequences are.
His name is Dr. Nick Haslam and he’s a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne who has studied a phenomenon he calls “concept creep,” which refers to the tendency of concepts having to do with harm — from trauma to depression — to broaden their meaning over time. Nick describes how concept creep happens in two ways — vertical and horizontal — and occurs both amongst clinicians and the general public. He explains what he thinks is behind concept creep, and how the way we talk about harm-related concepts changes how people experience themselves and life, bringing new kinds of identities and new kinds of people into existence. Nick argues that while there are upsides to concept creep, it also carries potential dangers that can negatively impact our lives.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Nick’s ResearchGate page
- “Harm Inflation: Making Sense of Concept Creep”
- “How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm” — Atlantic article about Nick’s work
- The Loss of Sadness by Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield
- “Making Up People” by Ian Hacking
Connect With Nick Haslam
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Brett McKay: Brent McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast, trauma, violence, bullying, addictions, the range of things that these words encompass has expanded over time, and while my guest today would say that changes in how language is used are natural and inevitable. He also argues the way we use words matters, and has consequences, and that we need to better grapple with what those consequences are. His name is Dr. Nick Haslam and he is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, who studies a phenomenon he calls concept creep, which refers to the tendency of concepts having to do with harm from trauma to depression to broaden their meaning over time.
Nick describes how concept creep happens in two ways, vertical and horizontal, and occurs both in most clinicians in the general public. He explains what he thinks is behind concept creep and how the way we talk about harm-related concept changes how people experience themselves in life, bringing new kinds of identities and new kinds of people into existence. Nick argues that while there are upsides to concept creep, it also carries potential dangers that can negatively impact our lives after the show’s over check at our show Notes at aom.is/concept-creep.
Nick Haslam, welcome to the show.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Hi Brett, glad to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are a psychologist who has researched and written about an idea that you call concept creep in psychology, and we’re gonna get into the details about this, but broadly speaking, how would you describe concept creep?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Well, concept creep is just the tendency for concepts to do with harm, that is concepts to do with suffering or pain or damage or destruction to broaden their meanings over time so that they start to refer to a wider range of things than they once did.
Brett McKay: Okay, so we’ll talk about one for example, an idea we hear a lot in the popular culture is this idea of trauma, a decade, two decades ago, it had a very specific meaning, we’ll talk about what that was, but over time, it has broadened to encompass larger, psychological things that happen in life, it covers more than besides that specific meaning it originally was designed to describe.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah, and that’s a great example. In fact, trauma, as you know it goes right back centuries and it used to refer to a physical wound, and then about 100 years ago, it started to refer to a psychological wound instead, and that’s now the dominant meaning, but also within psychiatry, a trauma, a traumatic event used to be something that was seriously life-threatening, but over time, in successive additions of psychiatric classifications, that idea has loosened, which is a great example of concept creeps that refers to a wider range of bad things that can happen. And of course, every day people have taken that further, so that in some circles, a trauma just now refers to pretty much any kind of adversity, not just the release to be ones that used to mean.
Brett McKay: When did you first start noticing this idea of concept creep in your work as a psychologist?
Dr. Nick Haslam: My memory is really vague on that. So I started thinking about this seriously about 10 years ago, and I first wrote about it in 2015, but I have friends in grad school who said that they used to hear me banging on about it back in the 90s, so look, I think it’s been around for a while, but I just started noticing what I thought was a pattern around about 10 years ago, so the clinical psychology side of me was saying, “there’s all this work on how our ideas about mental illness have broadened massively over the last century, and the trauma example is another fine example of that.” How I started to notice people talking about trauma in a much looser, more expansive kind of way, and then the social psychology side of me also noted similar things going on in relation to, for instance, bullying or prejudice, how social psychologists started to talk about prejudice in ways that include the things well beyond the kind of blatant bigotry that they used to exemplify prejudice back in the old days.
I thought, Well, maybe there’s a pattern going on here, maybe this is a general tendency for harm concepts to expand and inflate over time.
Brett McKay: And you argue that concept creep in psychology can happen in two ways, there’s vertical expansion and horizontal expansion, walk us through what does vertical expansion look like?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Vertical expansion is just the tendency for a term to come to refer to milder and milder examples, so that trauma case you just mentioned is really a terrific example of this. Where initially trauma referred to things that were really severe life-threatening damaging to life and limb and over time, come to refer to things much milder, less severe less damaging while still referring to the more severe things as well, so the… So, trauma, it’s a vertical creep in the sense that there’s a kinda downward movement in the range of things that the concept refers to. Whereas horizontal creep is more when a word starts referring to qualitatively different things in addition. So to give you an example of this bullying, is a good case study, I think here as well, and the idea of bullying has really broadened over time, so if you’ll allow me to go off in a little bit of an excursion here.
Brett McKay: Sure.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Bullying was introduced to psychology by this Norwegian psychologist back in the 1970s, and he was really specific, that it was a kind of peer aggression that occurred among school children that had to be intentional, it had to be repeated, it had to be carried out in the context of a power differential or a bigger or more powerful or older bully terrorized a smaller, weaker, younger victim. And over time, of course, this idea of bullying has been expanded to refer to some milder kind of examples and all of those criteria have been relaxed in the bullying literature, but an example of horizontal concept creep here, I think is how we are increasingly using the word bullying to refer, not just to things that happen in playgrounds, but also things that happen in boardrooms.
So this like expansion of the idea of bullying from something that occurs with children to something that occurs among adults is what I’d call a horizontal creep, it’s an expansion. Not of severity, no one’s saying that adult bullying is milder than childhood bullying, but it’s to a different range of experiences, a different range of contexts, so I would call that an example of horizontal creep or if you wanna go back to the trauma case, the fact of that trauma used to refer to physical wounds and then it expands to refer to psychological wounds is another example of this sort of horizontal creep where the concept broadens out to refer to qualitatively different sorts of phenomena.
Brett McKay: I wanna dig more into some of these examples so we can flush out… So people can see how different psychological concepts have experienced vertical and horizontal expansion. So let’s dig in this trauma idea more, ’cause you see it any time you open up a magazine or a website article, there is just trauma, everything’s trauma. You mentioned that originally started out, trauma was a physical harm, if you’ve lost a limb or you had a big wound in war, that was trauma. And then it shifted that you could also experience psychological trauma, and that is often the result of something very severe. What was the example? What was psychological trauma originally described as?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Well, I think there wasn’t a single kind… And again, also, there’s this ambiguity here, because often people use trauma to refer to the event, the traumatic event, but sometimes they also use it to refer to the psychological response, so there’s a kind of ambiguity in here. But when trauma made the jump from the physical to the mental, it was in the time of Janey and Freud and the like, and so often it was sexual trauma, often it was sexual abuse, rape, various kinds of sexual harm done to people, supposedly causing hysteria and other things like this. So trauma was events that weren’t necessarily causing physical damage to the person, but were in some ways, or rupturing their mind or soul in some fashion.
Brett McKay: And then you’d also see it… You started seeing it a lot in the 70s and 80s. Describe PTSD, it was caused by a traumatic event, you experienced what I guess I would call moral trauma and it really harmed you psychologically.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah, I mean, the whole advent of PTSD, and PTSD didn’t exist until 1980, when DSM-III was published. I mean, they’d always been shell-shocked, there’d always been a recognition that there were psychological casualties of war, but there hadn’t been this recognition that a traumatic event could cause a particular kind of mental illness. And so when DSM-III was published in 1980, it was pretty much in response to the Vietnam War and the kinds of symptoms that were people, the people were facing there. And DSM-III said that trauma was something which was, as I indicated, a life-threatening, damaging situation where the person was at risk of death or serious injury. And look, the word trauma had been used in the physical sense in the early psychiatric classifications where it was referring to physical or chemical or electrical damage to the brain, but only in 1980 did we start talking about trauma as being some sort of psychologically meaningful event that caused harm. And in the case of PTSD, that harm would include flashbacks, would include hyper-vigilance, high levels of anxiety, and a range of deeply unpleasant and often hard-to treat symptoms.
Brett McKay: And so you’re seeing again, this vertical creep, it moves in the physical then it moves to psychological, but even at the psychological, when it made that jump, the psychiatrist and the colleges were very adamant, this is… Trauma is only something, it has to be really severe, it’s like you were raped or you saw someone die, or you did something in war that went against your colleague, it was like the stakes are really high for there to be considered a traumatic event.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah, and look, I think that’s where it was in 1980 and then progressively over the next few revisions of the DSM-III that got relaxed. And look, It didn’t get relaxed in some sort of willy nilly unprincipled way. There were reasons for it. So for instance, a psychiatrist often noticed that people showed post traumatic symptoms, just full fledged PTSD, but in response to witnessing rather than directly experiencing some sort of traumatic event or through some sort of event which wouldn’t quite have met the criteria for being traumatic according to DSM-III, but nevertheless was pretty severe, and so over a period of time, and this was arrested a little bit in DSM-V in 2019, there was this loosening of what counted as a trauma, so it could include indirect experiences, vicarious experiences, witnessing things rather than having them happen to oneself, sexual experiences, which weren’t necessarily assaults, but which were developmentally inappropriate. And in various ways, this idea of trauma broadens, and it broadens, as I say for often quite good reasons, namely that some people show full fledged post traumatic stress disorder, having experienced something that fell short of the original definition of what a trauma was.
Brett McKay: So this idea vicarious, this could be… If you just saw something like on the news, this could cause trauma?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a kind of indirect experience was allowed. You no longer had to be the person to whom it happened, you just simply have to be aware of it. And of course, the more you do this, the more you broaden these conscious, the more people are potentially being traumatized, and of course the rates of posttraumatic stress disorder therefore go up because more people are eligible for as it were.
Brett McKay: There’s also another thing, there’s the expansion by clinicians that’s going on, but there’s also kind of an expansion going on with popular culture, where there’s people themselves where they start to take that idea, they’re not psychologists, but they’ve heard about it, and then they continue the expansion even more and as you said earlier, trauma can be just something like just normal frustration for regular people.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Absolutely, and I think when I talk about concept creep, I’m not only talking about what professionals are saying, it’s just as much what’s going in the culture at large. And you’re quite right, there is this tendency to grab a concept and run with it. And that’s just the nature of psychology, because they really are not bright lines between what is trauma and what is rather just an unpleasant event. There is gradations of these things, the way you draw the line, It isn’t clear, but yeah, lay people, I think for assortment of reasons, will tend to expand concepts, use concepts more broadly. Not just concepts of trauma, but I mean, you can call someone a narcissist, just ’cause they’re a little bit unpleasant. There’s a wholesale borrowing of psychological concepts and using them in a little bit of a promiscuous way.
Brett McKay: Now, you can see how it creeps into the popular culture. A couple of months ago, my daughter was having this frustration is like, “I’m so traumatized,” and I was like, “What… Where did you like, where did you hear that? Like that you’re traumatized by that? Because for me the definition of trauma is like you had to like, it’s like PTSD, you had to experience something that gave you PTSD and that was you know, the severe stuff, the really heavy stuff. And I was like, “Where did you learn?” She’s like, “Oh, a YouTuber talks about that,” I was like, “Oh okay, that’s interesting.”
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah but this happens all the time, and it’s interesting, we do some research on this sort of thing and we find that people have very widely discrepant understandings of what these words mean. So, some people like you might have relatively narrow concepts of trauma. Others, maybe like your daughter, or at least the YouTubers who are giving her these ideas might have much broader ones. We aren’t using these terms with common meanings, we often mean very different things by them. As I say, we’ve done research on this and we find huge variations in the breadth of people’s concepts of trauma, of bullying, of abuse, of mental illness.
We find that there are systematic differences in the source of people who have broader versus narrower concepts. So people who are more politically liberal, tend to have broader concepts. Women on average, tend to have broader concepts of harm. More empathic people have broader concepts of harm. There’s an array of different personality characteristics, people who are somewhat more personally vulnerable tend to have broader concepts of harm. It’s not about age incidentally, so often people think it’s just these youngsters who have these broad concepts of harm. Actually, age is not the main determinant at all.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned bullying and you give that as an example of horizontal expansion where it went from schoolyard to boardroom. But you also talked about your research paper that it’s also expanded horizontally by… You can now cyberbully someone, right? So it’s like… It goes from the physical world to the virtual world.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah look I think bullies and humans, in general, are versatile right? So if we got a new medium for doing something horrible to someone we’ll take it. And again, that obviously couldn’t have occurred back in the ’70s because there was no cyber to bully with. And you know this is nevertheless a broadening of the meaning. You used to… Bullying required you to be in the physical presence of someone in the old days, and now it doesn’t, you can do it digitally.
And again, no one is saying that cyberbullying is less severe than in-person physical bullying, there’s no intrinsic greater mildness of it but it is a different phenomenon. And I think it’s really important too here to be clear, I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, I think some people when they hear the idea of a concept creep, they think, “This individual is saying we shouldn’t be broadening our meanings and that it’s wrong, or that it’s a sign of weakness, or vulnerability, or fragility or something like that.” I’m not saying that at all, I’m saying once bullying expands to include cyberbullying, it’s broadened, its meaning. And that’s a thing that’s neither intrinsically good nor bad.
Brett McKay: How has bullying experienced, or has had vertical expansion?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Well, I think again, going back to what Olweus, the Norwegian, said about bullying… It had to be behavior that was repeated, intentional and carried out downwards in some sort of power hierarchy. And over time all of those things have been relaxed, so that we can now say that someone’s bullying someone else, even if they only did it once.
Now that’s intrinsically a vertical expansion, right? Because it means now you don’t need to do something multiple times to be called a bully, you just need to do it once. So that’s a milder understanding of what bullying might be. You can be a bully through unintentional behavior, according to some ways of thinking, that’s again, arguably a vertical expansion. You could argue with that. I mean often, bullying as well the focus in the old days used to be on physical acts of comission where you do something bad to someone else but more and more bullying is including acts of omission where you just fail to include someone in your social group and things like that.
Which I think you know, ostracism hurts, I’m not saying that’s intrinsically milder, but I think once you start including acts of omission among acts of commission you are essentially making the behavior more mild. And the other example I think also, in terms of the hierarchy idea, once upon a time bullying was always downwards in a hierarchy but then when I do my human resources module at my University, I’m told that you can be bullied by someone below you in the hierarchy or by a peer at the same level. And I think once you start talking about bullying as something that two co-workers do to one another when they’re at the same rank, or when a underling bullies someone who’s higher up the chain, that’s probably in most cases a vertical expansion. It’s a milder kind of behavior than when someone in power is bullying someone with less power.
Brett McKay: Is also like… Just like teasing… That would be sort of good-natured teasing can be labeled bullying now, is that like a vertical expansion?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah it would be, and again, no one’s saying that teasing is fun necessarily, but that’s the other thing, I think you see in many examples of concept creep that it’s more and more seen as being a matter of the victim, or target’s, perceptions, not necessarily the intentions of the person who’s doing the bullying. So if you experience my teasing of you as being bullying, then it probably is bullying. So there’s a kind of subjectivizing of the concepts as well, rather than trying to define the concepts in terms of actual objective behaviors.
Brett McKay: You also talk about addiction has gone through concept creep, how so?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Well, I think this is another story which you know, I didn’t invent. There’s a lot of people that have observed this before me, but at one point in time addictions were to ingested substances, so you shoot up your heroin or you smoke your cigarette and over time you develop a physiological dependency to the substance which you require more and more of to get the same sort of hit.
And there is a physical dependency on this ingested substance, which strictly your body doesn’t need. But then over time, we’ve developed this idea of behavioral addictions where you can be addicted to pornography, to eating, to sex, to love, to gambling, and a range of other behaviors. Some of which you have to do, I mean you do have to eat, so it’s not as if, like heroin, you don’t actually need it to survive. So there’s been this general inclusion of acts, some of them merely just bad habits, and describing them in terms of an addiction dynamic as if you’re addicted to the behavior rather than addicted to some substance. And again, no one’s saying this is necessarily a bad idea because there’s lots of neuro-biological evidence that similar processes are going on when you are addicted to a substance as when you’re addicted to a video game, let’s say. But, nevertheless, it’s still an expansion of the idea. Addiction wasn’t in the past used to refer to these sorts of habitual compulsive behaviors and now it is.
Brett McKay: And then I guess an example too of vertical expansion with addiction is that you… And clinically addiction is, it’s a repetitive behavior that gets in the way of your life, that just causes problems. Some people might call something they do repetitively an addiction but it doesn’t really get in the way of their life. They might check their phone more than they like but it doesn’t… They can still pay their bills, they go to jobs, it’s not getting in the way of their marriage, etcetera, but they might call that an addiction, even though clinically, they might say, well, it’s not an addiction.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah, quite right, and I think a lot of people say this and sometimes they say it kinda flippant way without really meaning it. They’re not claiming that they’re suffering from a mental illness when they say that they check their phones too often but they’re using this word which has these connotations of dependency and which also imply that these things might be hard to get out of or that you have limited control over them. So I think the words we use to describe our experiences matter and if you start using those words in loose, relaxed, inflated kinda ways that can have consequences.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Have any other mental disorders like maybe ADHD, anxiety, depression, have those experienced concept creep over the years?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Have any not experienced it? I think it’s really so common. Pretty much any disorder you can think about has probably undergone some change at some point. Now it hasn’t always necessarily been in one direction. So often there’s a broadening from one addition of a diagnostic classification to the next and then it retreats the one after. But for sure these things have happened, so attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder has certainly broadened. And the reason why these things broaden in part is ’cause they’re on a spectrum, they’re on a continuum, and so where you carve the continuum between those who have the disorder and those who are merely a little bit inattentive or rambunctious is quite hard to do, but certainly you see very large increases over certain periods of time in the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder and one reason for that is that the diagnostic boundary has shifted downwards so that more people meet the criteria, so that’s happened.
I think in depression, there’s definitely work that people are using the word more loosely than they once did, everyday people, and there’s also some evidence that the professionals have as well. So there’s a great book called The Loss of Sadness by Allan Horwitz and Jerry Wakefield, which discusses how the idea of depression at one point referred to very severe melancholia where the person was essentially often suffering from delusions of rotting from the inside or wasn’t simply unhappy and over time we’ve started to refer to what used to be just everyday sadness as depression, we’ve brought in clinical language to refer to everyday emotions to some degree. Now that’s not to say that in psychiatry, depression has radically changed its meanings, often these changes in meanings are more how everyday people use these words inappropriately if you like, compared to professional language rather than how psychiatry uses these words.
But yes, depression’s broadened over time. You can say the same thing about some anxiety conditions. You can certainly say the same thing about the autism spectrum, how that has certainly broadened out over time, often in fits and starts rather than in sort of one linear kind of way, but it’s really, really common. And look, I’m not the first person to point out diagnostic expansion or concept creep, a lot of people have talked about it. There was a lot of chatter prior to the publication of the last issue of the DSM in 2013, when people were saying normality is endangered because everything is now said considered abnormal because our idea of mental illness is just billowed out to become something enormously inflated.
Brett McKay: With regards to the anxiety, I have friend who is a college professor and he was… He kind of… He was telling me something like oh, that’s… After I read your papers, that’s concept creep in action. He was saying how maybe 10, 15 years ago when he was teaching, he’d have one or two students that would need some sort of testing accommodation. And usually it’s for… They were dyslexic or something like that. And now he says, it’s like 30% of my students get some sort of test accommodation ’cause they have test anxiety. And he’s like, it’s really interesting to see that happen in just 10 years.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah, some of these things happen very rapidly, some of them happen more slowly. And I think that experience that the professor had is something we see here in Australia as well, it’s not a uniquely US phenomenon. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that the professional concept of an anxiety disorder has broadened over that time. We’ve done some research on this and shown that the tendency for mental disorders to expand over time has been weak overall, present but weak, but how people use those concepts or people’s willingness to see their own experience in terms of these concepts and often get a compliant doctor to sign off on them has definitely increased, so more and more people are describing their experience, it’s not as normal worry or normal anxiety but more as clinical anxiety, which therefore needs some sort of accommodation or need some sort of treatment. And again, that’s not necessarily something you lay at the foot of the psychiatrists, that’s really just how everyday people are starting to understand their own experience and it’s having real effects at universities.
Brett McKay: What’s your theory about what’s behind concept creep? Do you have an idea… I guess this, completely theoretical, but what would encourage concept creep you think?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Well, I think there’s a pattern here in that there are a lot of concepts which are creeping. There are a lot of these ideas that we’ve talked about so far that are broadening their meanings and they’re actually quite diverse. So, a trauma and mental illness and addiction are all to do with clinical psychology and mental health problems. But then there are others like bullying and abuse, which aren’t specifically about mental illness. And then there’s others like violence and hate and prejudice, which are different yet again. And I think maybe there’s some sort of single, underlying dynamic for all of these and what I say without huge amounts of evidence I have to be clear is that it’s just been a rising sensitivity to harm within many Western cultures. There’s just a greater concern for harm, a concern for caring for others who have been harmed, harm has just sort of become a more sub dominant cultural theme. And we are therefore more attentive to it than we used to be.
And I’m not just saying that from my armchair, we’ve actually done some work looking at changes in moral language over the last century, we do find starting at about 1980 after the prominence of harm-related moral concepts have declined throughout the 20th century, you see this fairly steep rise since then, at roughly the time when I think a lot of concept creep is happening, people are becoming more concerned about harm, they’re becoming more concerned about the ways in which people are harmed and the way in which people harm others, and the changing meanings are simply a reflection of that rising cultural concern about harm, which I think is quite ambivalent, being more concerned about harm is a great thing, right?
You no longer tolerate bad behavior, you no longer tolerate sexual harassment as much as you used to, you no longer tolerate bullying as much as you used to. You identify people who might have been languishing without treatment and say, “Here, here are some treatments for your problems,” which we’ll now call a mental illness, but maybe also there are some negative aspects as well. So I would say at a broader kind of cultural societal level, what is going on is this rising sensitivity to harm and the changes in concept meanings come out of that. Now of course, there are other things which might lead people to broaden the meanings of concepts, so sometimes people do it quite deliberately, people broaden the meaning of a concept in order to achieve some sort of political and concepts creep for an assortment of reasons, which we’ve talked about in some of our academic papers, but I think the dominant thing as I was saying is just is rising concern with harm in our cultures.
Brett McKay: Is the rising sensitivity due do you think the fact that since about the 1980s, Western societies have been relatively affluent and safe, and so you become more sensitive to things that in a previous generation you would have just ignored ’cause you were starving or your family’s going off to war, etcetera, so you didn’t have the luxury to be sensitive to harm, so now that we are a little more safe, we can be more sensitive to those, to harm.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah, look, I think that’s a large part of the story, and again, you have to be careful how you say this because you don’t want to create the impression that you think that no one is suffering out there, of course there’s lots of rotten things happening in the world. But yeah, I think the sort of people who do studies, the sort of people who use the words trauma and bullying and addiction in their understandings of their own experience, tend to have grown up in context where there is less time and damage, where we do live longer, where there is more affluence. And so of course, it stands to reason that milder things were seen harmful if you are accustomed to less harm, and we do find some pretty good evidence, so that’s one of the drivers of what’s going on with concept creep.
So part of it, I think you’re right, is just people adjust to the level of risk and threat and danger in their world and if you’ve experienced less of it, smaller harms will be more salient to you and more problematic to you. So I think it’s partly a story to do with just the objective, rising comfort over all of our lives and it’s also changing our values, so I think there’s this rise in what some people have called post-materialist values where people seek fulfillment and well-being for its own sake, rather than just struggling to get by materially, and that I think also contributes to this rising focus on the things that can go wrong in your life and a greater attention to, in the scheme of things, milder problems.
Brett McKay: You also bring in this idea, this philosopher, Ian Hacking, that might provide some idea about concept creep, what did he have to say that can help us understand concept creep?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah look, Hacking is one of my heroes, he’s a philosopher based in Toronto, and I mean, he has this idea of looping kinds and what he calls dynamic nominalism if you care about that, but essentially that idea is he says, as concepts evolve, and he wrote some wonderful stories about evolving ideas of autism and multiple personality and things of this nature and child abuse, concepts changed through time. We all know that, you don’t need to be historian to know that, but what Hacking adds to that, that’s interesting is that these changing concepts actually change your identities, they bring new kinds of person into existence. Once you start using some sort of concept like autism or like bullying, once you start using these words in different ways, you actually change how people experience themselves and how they identify themselves as being bullied or as being victims or as being traumatized and those changing concepts through history bring about new senses of personal identity and social identity, which really matter.
So, it’s not as if just the concept changes in some sort of abstract way, it actually changes people, makes new kinds of people exist, you get a greater range of new traumatized people who see themselves as traumatized as a class and historical changes in concepts sort of find their way inside us to create new identities. So look, that was probably a little bit waffly, in fact I’m sure it was waffly but Hacking is sort of giving us a way of showing how concept creep at a cultural level, that is changes in how the culture at large defines concepts can have impacts on the individual members of those cultures.
Brett McKay: No, that makes sense. So if you were… Before, if you were just like a worrier, now you say, “Oh, I have anxiety.” And that changes the way you think about yourself and how you interact with the world.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Yeah, and how others react to you and how you seek certain kind of treatments and how you receive certain kind of treatments and has all sorts of flow on consequences, and the very same experience at some level suddenly becomes different ’cause the label isn’t just a label, the label creates your sense of self, allows others to see you in a certain way as someone who’s experiencing a disorder rather than someone who’s just experiencing every day worries.
Brett McKay: So we mentioned how there’s been concept creep going on from the clinician standpoint with the DSM-5, they’ve been changing it over the years, and they’ve, for good reasons as you said, maybe we need to… It makes sense to expand trauma in certain ways, but as we also have talked about, there’s also an expansion going on with lay individuals, and I’ve noticed, I would say in the past year or two, this increase of, I’d guess we call them mental health influencers on social media, I don’t know if you follow that much, do you think social media is accelerating the idea of concept creep in different ways?
Dr. Nick Haslam: I don’t follow it too much, but I’m sure you’re right, I think it turbo charges everything. Right, so the rate of change is just so much more rapid now, in part because there’s just this instantaneous circulation of new ideas and words get used in new ways all the time, and of course, at some level, this is all good democratization of ideas and people [0:32:42.0] ____ borrow and use these words any way they like, but I do think it does become a bit too use a word I used earlier promiscuous, I think you’re using words too freely, the clinical words especially get detached from their actual professional meanings. And I think at some level, you can say, Well, who cares? Who cares if someone’s talking about being traumatized when it was just some minor romantic break-up, who cares what language they use? And I think it does kind of matter, because if you’re framing your experience in clinical language in terms of diagnostic language, that is implications for how damaging you think the experience will be what sort of interventions you might need for it, and it changes the whole complexion of what problem is in your world, so the short answer to your question is, yeah, I’m sure influencers and many others who are using psychiatric sorts of terms in new and broader inflated ways, I’m sure that’s occurring a lot, and I do worry a little bit about the consequences of that.
Brett McKay: So there is consequences of concept creep, we’ll talk about the negatives, but first let’s talk about positives, what do you think are the benefits of content creep? What have been the benefits of concept creep, you think?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Well, I think in the abstract, you could just say, if you are identifying new harms which you previously didn’t identify as being problems, then you allow them to be dealt with and taken seriously and respected. So if, for instance, in terms of bullying if in previous times, we just thought that nasty behavior by superiors to the underlings in workplaces was just ordinary office politics and you should just harden up and deal with it. I think if you start to use the label of bullying to refer to this, and maybe that allows you to control, reduce, deal with and punish bullying in a workplace context, which is a good thing, so that’s just of an example, I think where broadening the concept allows you to problematize things that were previously tolerated, you could probably say the same thing about some kinds of abuse or harassment or violence, pretty much any concept, if you just lower the threshold for when you identify that, that concept, it allows you to care for people who have been harmed, harmed in ways that weren’t previously considered to be important enough to deal with. So that’s all a bit abstract. I’m sorry, Brett, but I think pain is to say that there are both costs and benefits, and I think the benefits are problematizing and taking seriously forms of harm that were previously neglected.
Brett McKay: What about the negative consequences both for the individual and as a society?
Dr. Nick Haslam: Well, I think as a society, you just have to wonder whether it makes good sense if everyone thinks they’ve been traumatized or if everyone thinks they got a mental health condition, or occasionally, of course, lowering the threshold for when some bad thing has happened can be over sensitive, we can, in the case of bullying, for instance, criminalized behavior that really might be unintentional, unrepeated and really not so bad at all in context, especially if we allow the person who’s being victimized to define what counts as bullying to them. I think it can lead to some overly harsh punishments for people who’ve maybe done things that aren’t as severe as the term might suggest, I think in terms of the clinical world, again, you have to be really careful how you say this because you do want people to go and seek help when they have experienced some kind of mental illness, and not enough people, especially men, do seek help for mental health problems, but then if you define mental health problem so broadly, that just about everyone has them, I think you run the risk of people feeling that they are unable to deal with their own problems themselves, they have to seek professional treatment when perhaps they could do pretty good self-help without professional intervention. You see people defining themselves as harmed or as victims, when maybe that’s not a very helpful identity from the standpoint of recovery and getting better.
So I think, generally speaking, again, being somewhat abstract here, broadened concepts of harm lead more people to identify themselves as victims and as harmed, and that if it becomes part of your identity, I think is problematic ’cause it often stands in the way of you getting out of those problems. Havard psychologists, Payton Jones and Richard McNally have done some amazing work on trauma where they experimentally manipulate people’s concept of trauma to give them broader versus narrower a concept of trauma, then they expose them to a very unpleasant video clip with IRB approval, of course, and they show that those who have a broadened concept of trauma tend to respond worse with more post-traumatic symptoms to the gruesome video, showing that the breadth of your concept of trauma in this case, has real emotional consequences for you, and I think much could be said and much could be said about how broadened concepts of metal illness might have as Hacking would have said, implications for our well being.
Brett McKay: Well Nick, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?
Dr. Nick Haslam: There’s lots of academic papers, I haven’t written anything really popular on it, you can find an article by Conor Friedersdorf from the Atlantic from 2016 when the first paper came out, if you wanna see what I’ve been doing and my colleagues have been doing, I’ve got a research gate page where you can find some of my papers and you can… I’d recommend a review paper we have called harm inflation, that was published a couple of years ago in the European Review of social psychology. It’s all kind of technical. So if you’re interested in social psychology, you’ll love it, if you’re not, it might not be right, but look check out my research gate page and get in touch if you’d like to.
Brett McKay: Well, Nick Haslam, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Dr. Nick Haslam: Me too thank so much.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Nick Haslam, he’s professor of psychology at The University of Melbourne, you can find all of his research on concept creep at researchgate.net. Just go to researchgate.net and look up Nick Haslam. Also check out our shownotes at aom.is/concept-creep, where you will find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, make sure check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you find our podcast, archives, as well as thousands of article interviews about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to join ad free episodes of AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium, head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code manliness to check out for a free month trial, once you’re signed up, download the stitcher app on android OS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast and if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it, if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you think would get something out of it, as always thank you for the continued support. Until next time it’s Brett McKay. [0:39:21.2] ____ AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.